When the golden dome of the Askariya shrine, a holy Shiite site in Iraq, was blown up last week, enraged militias did not attack American bases but rather went after Sunni extremists who, they privately believed, were the real culprits.
How could that have been when clerics loudly railed to the cameras that the United States was the perpetrator?
Meanwhile, Hamas, despite its hatred of the U.S. and unabashed pride in its terrorist suicide bombers, suddenly seeks victim status when Washington plans to cut Palestinian financial assistance. If America is so terrible, why would Hamas want its tainted money?
On any given day, the state-run media of the Middle East publish vile anti-Semitism and various slanders against the West. With such an unapologetic assault on Western values, why then would thousands riot when an obscure Danish publication runs a few tasteless cartoons caricaturing Islamic radicalism? And why would Western crassness be surprising to radical Muslims anyway, given their constant harangue that we are decadent and should be shunned?
One answer to these paradoxes is that though scorn of the United States may be a public sport, most abroad privately value American financial support — thus acknowledging the often positive global role the United States plays.
The honor-bound Middle East's leadership is obsessed with the West in general, and the United States in particular. It desperately seeks our undivided attention, and yet resents deeply that this very desire reflects either dependence or hidden admiration.
So Shiite clerics know that the United States freed them from Saddam Hussein, sponsored democracy and has offended most of the Sunni Middle East in supporting the Shiite right to self-representation. Yet gratitude to the infidel cannot be altogether pleasant for a once-proud but recently demoralized people.
Hamas leaders desperately want a U.S. secretary of state to sanction their government and give them a status they routinely deride. Likewise, Middle Eastern media outlets practice a particular behavior for themselves while insisting on quite another one for others — expecting, like troubled teenagers, to be offensive and touchy at the same time.
There are other explanations for this apparent asymmetry that transcends the usual alternating of envy and hostility toward the more powerful and influential.
The Middle East has grasped that its oil warps our own morality and makes us put up with such psychological puerility. Autocratic regimes that often subsidize jihadists claim they fight them in an attempt to win American attention — in the manner that odious right-wing dictatorships used to assure us that they were our friends because they were at least staunchly anti-communist.
But there is another rarely discussed reason that a two-faced Middle East feels it can be both savagely critical and needy of the U.S. We idealistic American people are ourselves also hypersensitive, but in a different way: We want to be liked at all costs.
Castigate an average American overseas for his support of democratic Israel and he will often apologize rather than cite America's aid to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority or Egypt — much less the liberation of Kuwait, feeding of Somalia and saving of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo.
We can see this strange psychological American need in the old conundrum over whether the United States is "hated." Rarely do we specify "detested by whom"? The theocracy in Iran? The fundamentalist Wahhabis in the Gulf? Hamas terrorists? Sheiks who pump oil for $5 a barrel and sell it for $60?
Perhaps decades of well-meant multiculturalism have made us forget that all cultures, sadly, are not equal — and how rare Western liberality and tolerance are, both in the past and present.
To remedy such anxiety, we need not advance American exceptionalism as chauvinism. Nor do we need to gratuitously remind theocracies, dictatorships, communist states and autocracies how cruel and corrupt they are to their own.
But still, Americans should develop a greater confidence to accept that we are not liked abroad in large part for good reasons — having had to so often fight those who wished to destroy our liberalism, from Hitler and Mussolini to Saddam and bin Laden.
In the case of Iraq, America ended a murderous regime, took no oil, gave billions of dollars in aid and plans to leave as soon as a democracy can replace a dethroned dictatorship. While that apparently makes us loathed by many in the Middle East, it is nothing we should or will apologize for.